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Northern Illinois University
College of Law
David C. Shapiro Memorial Law Library

Basic Legal Research

Introduction to Legislative History

Legislative history is becoming more important and relevant in legal research.

  • Most statutes are clearly understandable or have a great deal of case law interpreting the statute to which attorneys can look for guidance in interpreting the statute. However, some statutes may have vague or ambiguous language and there is little or no case law available to provide interpretation. In these situations it is necessary to research legislative history to develop a legal argument.
  • The purpose of legislative history is to determine the intent of the lawmakers at the time the law was created. If a statute is not clear on its face, the "Plain Meaning Rule" of statutory construction requires courts to look at documentation extrinsic to the statutory language to determine legislative intent.
  • Legislative history may also be helpful to see why language was added to or removed from a statute. Even if the language is clear, knowing the reason for a change can help enhance a legal argument related to the statute.
  • Before beginning a legislative history project, determine what (if anything) is available for the jurisdiction being researched. Federal statutes will generally have significantly more information available than state statutes. What is available from state to state varies greatly and some states do not provide any legislative history materials.

The rest of the information on this page will walk you through the steps of tracking down Illinois and Federal legislative histories.

Secondary Sources for Legislative History

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